Why 9-1-1 Can’t Save You

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” (May 15, 2015) described the state of our 911 call grid. Much like the blog I wrote about the state of American infrastructure, our emergency response capabilities are crumbling.

  1. Most call centers have inaccurate maps and/or can’t trace cell phone locations causing them to struggle to find many victims. The FCC estimates that improved locating software might save as many as 10, 120 lives annually (3:00). Indeed, 10-95% of cell phone users run the risk of not being found in a timely manner (4:23). This is even more alarming given the fact that the Red Cross estimates that 74% of adults expect help to arrive in under 3 hours after sending a tweet.
  2. We don’t have a national or–in some cases–even a state-wide 911 response system. Each county or jurisdiction is responsible for handling their own 911 calls which makes for an extremely fragmented system (6:53). In some areas, neighboring call centers can’t meaningfully talk to one another; obviously, a big problem in a disaster.
  3. Furthermore, several states don’t have a call center at all. For instance, Washington State’s 911 calls get routed to Colorado. This is often par for the course with internet and enterprise technology, but when there was an outage at the Colorado center (April 10, 2014), Washington did not have a back up. The center was down for 3 hours and Washington lost 4,300 calls, some of which resulted in death.
  4. Call centers don’t have very modern IP networks (8:08), instead they mainly use outdated, hardwired phones (like from the ’70s). An IP network allows computers to talk to one another either in a private network (sharing files between your phone and your computer) or in a public one (the internet). Updating would allow call centers to receive text messages, social media messages, and videos besides allowing for a more robust, resilient system. Oliver makes the point that video or text could be life saving in situations like domestic violence where a phone call is too conspicuous. Emergency Managers additionally know that in a disaster, text messages often get through the crowded phone lines easier than phone calls do.
  5. Most call centers are underfunded and understaffed (9:33) which means that victims may have to wait on the line for the next operator or that the call center can’t upgrade their mapping or cellular tech.
  6. Compounding the problem is rising call volume (10:44) because of the ubiquity of cell phones and butt dials. 911 call centers simply cannot handle normal, daily call volumes; during a disaster they will be absolutely drowned. As this CBS report points out: wireless carriers have the technology to support connectivity during a disaster. The problem continues to be the overwhelmed 911 call centers.

Oliver sums up his report with “…until we’re explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911, it seems we’re not going to do anything about them” (13:31). But I, like you, don’t wish people to die in order for change to happen.

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